“The City & the City” by China Mieville
This is a difficult review to write, for some strange reason. I’m a fan of Mieville’s work, and I’ve yet to read anything of his that fails to satisfy. The City & The City is a well-crafted novel set in three acts and is very much a crime novel. The speculative elements within the novel are what make it stand out — while obscuring it.
Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad in the city of Beszel is called in on a homicide. His investigation takes him to the neighboring city of Ul Qoma, and by neighbor I use that term a little loosely. The two cities are not separated by geography — they exist in the same space but in what I can only describe as different phases. Parts of the two locales “bleed” into each other, or crosshatch to use Mieville’s own words. As a socio-political coping mechanism, citizens of either city are trained to “unsee” their counterparts should they pass through an area where they can see or hear one another. It’s a strange construct that is never fully explained, but it doesn’t need to be.
The act of “unseeing” along with the prevention of illegal passage between Beszel and Ul Qoma is enforced by a mysterious agency known as Breach. As a result it enforces a form of social ignorance. Insert whatever two socio-political constructs you will if you’re looking for an allegory. It’s not required to appreciate this novel, and I think that’s one of Mieville’s strengths. He can take that sort of tack without adding an agenda to his work or having an intended message dominate the work. The story is what matters, and he delivers on that here. He doesn’t answer anything outright in terms of the two cities, the Cleavage that divided/united them, or what Breach really is. That’s where the reader comes in, looking between the lines as much as little as desired.
Mieville uses a very different voice from something like The Kraken or The Scar in this novel. The language is more sparse than you’d expect has a very European feel to it. Given the setting and that it’s done in first person, I can’t see it working any other way. Borlu’s a skeptic, even as the events of the novel unfold around him and ensnare him. It matches that noir style of detective novel while taking on a life of its own.
I really can’t say much more than that — not without getting too opinionated. This is a novel worth reading and forming your own opinion and interpretation. The surreal quality of the two overlapping cities gives the book a unique perspective and adds another layer of complexity to this police procedural.